So here’s how it happened: I’m sitting on our beautiful unflooded Common* with some of my favourite people and wine is flowing and the fire is crackling and we’re talking about all the signs of “normal” that are returning to our lives: the police stopping speeders, peace officers handing out parking tickets, citizens complaining about “the City,” neighbours starting to rag on each other… And I start expounding, aided by the freely flowing wine, about how that’s THE thing about community that people just don’t get. That it’s messy and conflict-ridden and hard and…
… and I blather on, because this is a huge horse of mine in these post-flood days, and as I say, “And community IS full of assholes and parasites… and bitches and mean girls and…”—at that precise moment, I see the essay and I fall in love with it. Oh, yes. Community, such a fuzzy-wuzzy warm word, rose-coloured glasses and hugs and smiles and planting flowers and front porches and granola-making organic-gardening hippies—oh, yes. And the punchline of the piece—I love it, I feel my toes curl in anticipation of how I’m going to lead up to it—the punchline is going to be, “Community is full of assholes, bitches and mean girls. And parasites.” And I’m going to repeat it a couple of times in the piece, like a chorus, and I’m going to build it around the YYC Attachment Parenting Village, because oh-yes-oh-yes-the-contrast—the immediate association of baby-wearing-co-sleeping-gentle-discipline-mamas and the bitches and mean girls line, oh-yes…
So I write it, first in my head, and then on-line, and I touch a raw nerve, of course, but…
Not quite the one I intended.
Now, that doesn’t happen to me very often—because I am an extremely effective manipulator of feelings and reactions when I write, even on those rare occasions when I so fall in love with a phrase or a sentence that I build everything around that. But. Here, I own my failure. Clearly, if I feel so many of you—not so much those of you publicly commenting on the post on my blog, but those of you dissecting it in other fora and in particular those of you sending me emotive private messages about it—missed its key point, I’ve failed as a writer.
“Yo, Jane, first visit here. What the hell are you yammering on about?”
“Yo, welcome. This: Why you need to get off your shy, lazy introverted ass and start building your tribe RIGHT NOW. But you can finish reading this missive first before going back in time to misunderstand the first one… It mostly stands alone, after the next paragraph.”
So. I own my failure. Should have refined, revised. But. I think my failure is also part of this attachment to a utopian vision of community so many people buy into. D’you know what I mean? When I say tribe, community, you don’t think bitches, mean girls, assholes and parasites, do you? No. You think perfection, utopia, eternal friendship, unconditional love, and warm bowls of soup… and when you talk about building your tribe, finding your tribe you seek perfection and utopia—or at least a hell of a lot more of that than I do. And beloved, when you seek perfection in community, it will always, always, always disappoint you.
And I really, really, really want you to have a tribe. So I am now going to pick up a sledge hammer and whack your brain with it, very bluntly, three times. Ready? Three points. Hear them. Understand them. Or die alone.
Here we go:
1. Community is not selfless.
Community, tribe does not equal charity. Or unconditional help and support. Or love, peace and eternal grooviness. And, so, you see, community is not selfless. It does not act selflessly as an entity, nor do its members act selflessly as individuals. You get out of community what you put into it. But not in the way you think.
I’m not talking about quid-pro-quo/I scratch-your-back-your-scratch-mine kind of thing here. That, beloved, is called reciprocal altruism, and it’s an essential part of most social relationships. Social transactions in a community are more complex, and they work like this. Patty’s really sick, and so Anne watches her kids for weeks and Sarah pops in every few days with groceries. When Anne’s marriage starts to implode, Lucy steps in to watch her kids so Anne and her partner can go to counselling sessions. Sarah calls Anne every few days to check in on her. When Sarah has a new baby, Karen sets up a meal train for her… And so it goes.
That’s how community works. It’s a collection of bonds. See? That’s how you get out of a community what you put into it. Not necessarily—in fact, rarely—from the person you give it to.
Now… Sarah is not feeding Patty and checking in on Anne because she’s anticipating payback down the line when she needs it, of course not. She does all that because she’s just a good person, right? A good friend. She loves Patty. She wants to help Anne. But each of those acts builds her social capital. And when she needs it, the community will give it back to her. Patty may not help her out, because maybe when Sarah’s in need, Patty’s life will still be a mess. But someone will. Guaranteed. Because Sarah’s part of a community in which she’s invested.
But that community, it’s not selfless. Not at all. It only carries its parasites for a while. If Patty just keeps on collecting and never gives back—she starts getting less and less. And funny thing: it’s rarely a conscious, explicit decision. It’s not that the community gets together and says, “Patty’s a parasite and we’re done with her.” It’s more subtle. People notice, as individuals. And, as individuals, choose to send their energy and help elsewhere.
So, beloved. Don’t be a parasite. Give, contribute, build, help. When you can. Because you never know when life will force you to collect.
Reader freak-out: Are you calling me a parasite?
Jane: Maybe. Are you?
2. Community is supposed to ostracize.
Holy fuck, did you hear that? That was a thousand jaws dropping, rose-coloured glasses smashing into little pieces. And gentle readers unsubscribing en masse. But yes, beloved. You do not include without excluding. You do not define what something, some circle is without leaving someone outside it. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN ALL-INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY. Every community, as it defines itself, defines who it includes within its circle and who it places outside them. Every community has rules. Articulated rules. And unspoken rules. And it punishes the members who break them.
Once, someone asked me to write up a piece on their little sub-community, and she wanted the dominant image to be “a diverse group of like-minded people.” Ha. You can be a tribe/community that values diversity up-the-wazoo—there will still be some type-a-thing you’ll exclude. Want to run a puppy mill in Sunnyhill? Get the fuck out. Not gonna happen. Crackhouse next door? No. Not part of what I want my diverse community to be, sorry. Joining an AP support group and looking for validation of your choice to sleep train your three-month old? Sorry. Wrong forum. A Richard Dawkins-loving atheist looking for affirmation in a creationist book club? Why the hell would you do that to yourself?
Community excludes and ostracizes. Rejects as well as embraces. That’s part of what it does.
Reader freak-out: You’re supporting ostracization and shunning and cyber-bullying!
Jane: No, I’m not. More on that in a future post. In the meantime, read the above paragraph again. Think about your tribes, communities and what defines them. What makes them what they are? Do their definitions truly exclude NO ONE? Really? Because I can give you a list of six people immediately that you would want to exclude out of your community, no matter how inclusive you claim it is. Community excludes. There’s no getting around that.
It totally sucks to be on the receiving end of that. Totally. Which brings us to sledge hammer point three:
3. It’s okay to leave.
We live in a really amazing, unprecedented world right now. For the first time ever, many of us get to choose our tribe, our community. We’re not stuck with the one we’re born into. We can work to change our community… or we can choose to leave. Find a new one. Start a new one.
This is an amazing, awesome and absolutely revolutionary idea. And it’s not true for all of humanity, and certainly not all of North Americans. But it’s true for me. All of my tribes, bar my extended family, are tribes of my choosing and creating. And I know it’s true for many of you. If you’re privileged enough to have access to the Internet and free time enough to surf and blog, you’re free enough to choose your tribe(s), your communities.
So. You can choose. You can leave.
As a new mother, I went through three different playgroups before I found one in which there was enough commonality between myself and the other women that I chose to stay and get to know them. As an adult looking for a “home,” I had two horrible misfires before finding my piece of beloved flood plane. As a fledging homeschooler, I’ve lost count of the number of on-line fora I’ve stumbled through before finding a couple that worked for me for a while… and then, decided to leave all those and start another that did what I needed such a forum to do… and no more.
You can choose. You can leave.
But… community is messy. And it takes time. And every, every, EVERY community has its assholes, bitches, mean girls, and parasites. So if you’re leaving all the time—if every time you encounter a community’s wart, conflict, friction, pain or dark side, you immediately run… oh, beloved. You will die alone and unhappy.
You will never find a tribe that works for you, my serial communist. Because… messy. Hard.
Reader freak out: Did you just call me a communist?
Jane: A serial communist, no less. What? You’ve got a problem with that?
* What is this Common about which you keep blathering? The common green space onto which many of the units at our housing co-op back onto. My extended backyard. My world. The reason I can raise and homeschool three children in 1000 square feet of badly designed space. Where I meet my neighbours and entertain my friends. The most important physical space in my life. Do you have a Common? Get one. Make one. Turn your backyard into one by inviting friends over to hang and drop in—all the time. Take over a public park with friends—preferably at the same time each week, each day. Spread the word. That piece of green space in your neighbourhood no one uses it? Make it your own. Make it your Common. Community needs common spaces, and it needs them to be used. Loved.
PS Worth reading: The talented Katia Bishop, who usually blogs at I Am The Milk, had an article last week on MamaPop that really resonated with me: 7-Year-Old Girl Sent Home From School For Having The Wrong Hairstyle. Have a read… And a think. And if you haven’t yet read The AP Hair Style: I don’t brush my children’s hair. It’s a massive philosophical thing, really–well. Have a peak there too. But read Katia’s post first.
Made me think, laugh and scream. Well… maybe not scream, except in agreement. I think you are spot-on about “all inclusive.” You simply can’t be. You can’t embrace organic lifestyle and biotech. You can’t be all about free enterprise and socialism. You can show love and respect toward those who are different from yourself but, when you’re talking “tribe,” you make your choices. I was having this conversation with my pastor the other day. I think “The CHURCH (universal)” should be all-inclusive. God is bigger than any of us and all of us and his (her?) love is big enough for all of us. Our church (the building full of people on the corner) needs to choose a target audience… a tribe. We can be traditional or contemporary, feed the homeless or provide support to upper middle class families struggling with time management and day care issues but we can’t be all things to all people. That’s why there needs to be other churches (other tribes) that can be other things to other people. And if someone leaves us and goes to them (or vice versa) that’s OK. They’re just looking for their place in the world.
Beautifully articulated point. Thanks for taking the time to share.
The aspect I liked most about this post was the idea of “sticking it out” with a group. I am definitely guilty of getting so frustrated with a community (of any size) that I need to get away, stand outside it. But that can be a lonely place. Nothing is perfect. Not even the Moo Cow, apparently. 😉
You’re perfection itself, if one is seeking the perfect moo cow. 🙂
The last bit of this post, where you admit it took you 3 different playgroups before you found one with women you could identify with really spoke to me. That’s where I am right now. I had found a group of women in my neighborhood who meet up once a week, and I continue to get invites for playdates, but I just don’t feel the click, you know? I just feel like I have to have more in common with someone that having a child the same age as theirs if I’m going to spend that much time with them. And once they start leaving potties full of bodily fluids in the middle of their playroom, I just can’t go back. Ever. 😉
But I’m glad there’s hope that I will find a community that I fit into. Because that would truly be lovely!
It takes time… and if you and I lived in the same city… well, you could never come over to my house, because it would cause you pain. But you could come to the Common anytime. With your own chair and cutlery… 😛
You go on with your bad self.
I love that you’re explaining in full detail…without being a douche about it (because some people who disagree with what a person writes can get very defensive) to get your point across. Bravo to you!
I don’t care how much we “accept” diversity…it doesn’t mean that it can be in our community…totally true.
I’m too arrogant to be defensive. 😛
I think a lot of us include the idea of “comfort” when we think about our community or whatever you choose to call it. When we don’t immediately feel that comfort when trying to adjust to a new group/ community we despair, feel lonely and lots of people give up then and there. I know I’ve been guilty of that before. That’s like sociology 101, right? I’ll leave the pontificating up to you.
True. “New” communities are hard. I’m not sure how often I’ve heard people say, “Well, I went to playgroup X, but I didn’t know anyone and didn’t talk to anyone, and no one talked to me, so I never went back.” It takes time. Investment. And sometimes, yeah, it’s a misfit. But very often it’s not an “a-ha!” fit the first time…
I liked the first version–pure unadulterated passionate rant, emerging from a real post-crisis moment, based in a real place (actually, two–the physical one, the heart one). Still don’t see how that is “failure…as a writer.” I liked the second version–OK, maybe kinder, not as Flames Shooting Out of Your Head, a clearer explication of what you intended and why, but still–no wussing out. Communities are messy. So are families. So is anything organic (see: manure). I have opportunistic and sometimes very weird weeds in what I loosely call my garden, and I yank them out. Doesn’t make me exclusionary, any more than when my parents closed their door at night after we all went to bed made them exclusionary. We are humans, we do what we can. And we’re all a little too hair-trigger on the “send” button, at a time when we could maybe be a bit slower at it. You didn’t fail at anything.
While I want to run over and give you a big hug for that–I think when half your readership misses what you think is the point… yeah, you’ve got to own you failed as a writer–*if* your goal was to communicate a specific message. Which mine was. Hard. Messy. Worth it. (Still. Love that juxtaposition. In fact, I see another essay forming around it. Oh-yes. Oh-yes…)
I think you are absolutely brilliant in so many ways! Your writing never fails to make me laugh, think, or laugh and think. I wish I could drop by your common for some wine and wild wisdom
YYC is beautiful in… well, actually, our weather blows goats pretty much 10 months out of the year. But we are having the most gorgeous September ever. Come visit. You can stay in my basement. Oh, wait, no you can’t…
Oh, I hear you. . . I’ve been working at this for a long time. Messy, mean girl, ostracize. Yep. Worth it? Yep, on that point, too.
Coincidently, I’ve been working on a piece about finding my Tribe.
I’m with Larkin in that I don’t see the failure either.
I reckon my head might just nod off its hinge from agreeing so hard to everything you said. I LOVE this post, and how much Truth is contained here.
Parasite-laden? Can be, but as you say – they leave.
Mean? Can be. But there’s nothing like a stand-up fight every now and again to shake things down.
Hard work? Absolutely, but worth every damn minute.
I’m in the 15th week of building a rather lovely online community, based around a weekend-long blog hop. Admittedly much of the ‘community’ aspect is lost for want of being actually, physically *there* in one anothers lives, but the spirit of the place is bloody marvellous, and so far, our parasites have dropped away (or they bimble along merrily, not realising that they’re in as far as they’re going to go) and the core group are burgeoning, increasing, going from strength to strength in friendship and supportiveness. It’s a fabulous thing to be part of 🙂
Good luck in the building. And thank you for such an in-depth, thoughtful comment.
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